All 3 entries tagged Material Culture

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July 05, 2012

'What connection can there be?': Objects, People and Place, c.1851"; paper at MIVSS, 29th June

On Friday 29th June, I presented a paper at the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar which focused on the theme of "Victorian Things Revisited" (full conference write-up here). My paper "'What connection can there be?': Objects, People and Place, c. 1851" represents a new direction in my work, developing a gradually emerging interest in material culture and the ways in which objects can be reconsidered in the context of space and mobility.

The paper originated in some research on Bleak House last summer, when I began to think more about the significance of the Great Exhibition for the national-global relations in the novel. I was particularly interested in some images by George Cruikshank (below), and the many questions they open up around the relationship between people, things, and place. As I blogged at the time, in looking at these images one can't help but recall the central question of Bleak House: "what connexion can there be [...] between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nonetheless, been very curiously brought together!”

cruikshank20all20the20world202.jpg

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Cruikshank's images illustrate the text of Henry Mayhew's comic novel 1851: or, the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys and family who came up to London to 'enjoy themselves' and to see the Great Exhibition, and it was this that formed the focus of my paper. Most attention to this text has focused on the glimpses Mayhew gives us of the Exhibition, where we find an interest in the objects on display, the new people present in an internationalised London, and the potential social good of the Exhibition (against the backdrop of Mayhew's other work of the same year, London Labour and the London Poor). But what interested me most was the way in which the narrative surrounding this also demonstrates a continual interest in things, people, and place, and their changing relations to one another. As the Sandboys family make their way to and around London, they encounter a continual stream of comic accidents and misfortunes in which people and things repeatedly surface and come into contact in unexpected ways. In particular, it's the connections forged through the mobility of people and things, and the implications for the space of the nation, which emerges as a key question of the text.

The wider framework for this reading, which I'm still teasing out somewhat, is the move towards thinking about objects in the context of global networks of mobility. This has emerged particularly in the context of imperial networks of commodities, and John Plotz's Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move is a fascinating study of objects "on the move", suggesting that pieces of "portable property" become resonant repositories of national identity in an increasingly global, mobile world. Plotz's main concern is with objects moving out from Britain, and his reading of "reverse portability" is concerned primarily with identifying an "imperial panic" raised by objects coming into Britain. I think, though, there's a lot more to be said about the circulation of objects (both British and foreign) within Britain not just as producing an adverse imperial reaction but also for the narratives of national identity, and physical traces of national space, that mobile objects create. There is, too, further scope for thinking about the ways in which objects function within a world being physically reshaped through mobile networks; objects make visible the abstract concept of a compressing world space, leave tangible traces of the connectedness of the nation to wider networks of mobility.

These are ideas that I'll be exploring as I develop the paper further, and the discussion that followed was extremely helpful in shaping some of the directions this will take. I'll be thinking more about 1851 alongside Bleak House, another novel written in the wake of the Great Exhibition and similarly preoccupied with the connections between people and things on the move; I was reminded, though, that there's the potential for connections to work as a more positive, benevolent force in Dickens, whereas my reading of Mayhew focused more on the anxiety surrounding these interactions. There's also more to be said around ideas about bodies and/as places/things: my discussion of body-thing interactions started to stray into ideas around embodiment and of the body-as-place, with feminist geography theory lurking in the background; in my next reading of the text I'll be thinking more about the mobility of the gendered body and the more nuanced readings of place/space relations that this might open up.

I'm entering into discussions of objects from the perspective of someone more familiar with ideas around space and mobility rather than material culture and I've still got a way to go with fully drawing out the nuances of these arguments - and I'm aware that a lot more reading (and re-reading) on material culture awaits - but I'm excited by the wealth of ideas this has opened up; it feels like this work will be productive both in terms of the perspectives on objects and material culture that it provides, and for refreshing my thinking on mobility and space.


July 02, 2012

Victorian Things Revisited @ Keele University, 29th June 2012

This meeting of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar focused on the theme of "Victorian Things Revisited", seeking to explore where the "material turn" has taken us in Victorian Studies and what new possibilities for research still remain. Throughout the day, each of the 6 presenters approached the theme of material culture from a different angle, demonstrating the rich diversity of approaches to material culture and opening up many new possibilities for new directions in this research.

The day started with a panel comprising of myself and Mary Addyman, a first-year PhD student also based in the Department of English here at Warwick. I gave a paper titled "'What connection can there be?': Objects, People and Place c. 1851", which I'll write about in a separate post as the panel generated a lot of ideas that I want to follow up in more detail. Mary's paper explored new research into the collection of Richard and Henry Cuming, a father and son who collected a vast array of objects from the 1780s to 1900, including geological and archaelogical artefacts, art, textiles, ceramics, Egyptian objects, and objects representative of British social history - including everyday packaging. The disorganisation and variety of the Cuming collection goes against our usual understanding of the Victorians as systematic collectors imposing order in a disordered world, but Mary sought to find a more nuanced reading of the way in which this disorganised mode of collecting might be read, thinking about the collector recording his place in the world and the sense of responsibility to future generations involved in this accumulation and preservation of the present. Mary ended by considering the temporality of collecting, drawing out some fascinating links between collecting and geology.

Bear

Image from Southwark Collections

In the second panel, two papers centred around objects that sit at the intersection between bodies and things and trouble the binaries between living and dead, natural and artificial. Julia Courtney (Open University) raised the question of "Living Things?" in her paper on Victorian taxidermy. This focused first on taxidemied animals and birds that are posed in scenes that recreate their "natural" environments, and then on animals that are anthropomorphised in artificial scenes, such as a scene of mice sat at a table playing cards. This raised interesting questions about the relationship between bodies and things, the point at which a body becomes a "thing", and by what means the status of "thing" is ascribed. Courtney also thought about the differences in cultural appreciation for taxidermied animals, comparing the Victorian fashion for and fascination with taxidermy as something that evokes a pleasurable response, versus the rather more reluctant way in which taxidermy is viewed - with humour? disgust?- today.

Card players

Walter Potter's Red Squirrels Playing Cards, c.1871

Courtney was followed by Michael Lee (Leeds Met) whose body-object discussions took a literary turn in a paper on "Eating Things in Lewis Carroll". Lee began with a theoretical exploration of the different conceptualisations of things and objects, raising the question "what kind of a thing is food?" His subsequent discussion of Alice in Wonderland suggested that through Carroll's use of food the borders between different types of things are blurred: food is a social thing which moves within a network of circulation that supercedes the human. Food also troubles the boundaries of body/thing and life/death: the body itself has the potential to be a thing that can be consumed, moving from subject to object status. In networks of consumption, Lee suggested, everything is edible and everything is social.

In the final panel of the day we moved towards science and industry. Stella Pratt-Smith's paper "Material, Manufactured, Modern: the Science of Victorian 'Thing' Culture" posited a more thorough understanding of the relationship between science and material culture: science was not just one aspect of Victorian material culture but central to allowing that material culture to come about. Her paper demonstrated how putting Victorian things into the contexts of their production, exploring and understanding how things were made, is not only illuminating for our understanding of particular Victorian objects but also for interpreting the significance of the Victorians' fascination with things. Pratt-Smith's discussion of the science of various objects, such as the development of purple dyes that held a particular allure and new glass technologies, provided a fascinating insight into the scientific developments fuelling material culture. This was particularly interesting in light of the recent Transforming Objects conference: Stella referred to Jim Mussell's discussion of chlorodyne (and I must thank Stella for her generous mention of this blog in her talk and handout!), and I was also reminded of Eugenia Gonzalez's talk on narratives of doll production.

Stephen Etheridge (Huddersfield) finished the day with a paper on "Brass Instruments, Bandsmen and Working-Class Identity: Brass Bands in the Southern Pennines and the creation of working-class identity, 1840-1900". Etheridge began by noting the overly romanticised notion of brass bands as symbolic of northern working-class culture, but moved in to offer a more nuanced understanding of the role of brass bands in the Southern Pennine region and the various ways in which bands featured as a centre-point of masculine working-class identity. Etheridge noted the strong community element of this identity: bandsmen forged a strong group identity within their band and were well known within the local community, and this was strengthened by the competitiveness between bands from different towns. But there was also a particularly strong individual identity forged through relation to one's own instrument: after the death of a player the instrument would feature as a strong reminder of the individual, often proudly displayed in his memory - we were also shown the image of a gravestone decorated with a trombone engraving. Here again the intersections between people and object, life and death, and the permanence of objects in comparison with the mortality of people - taking us full circle to the ideas raised about collections in Mary's paper.

There were many interconnections arising throughout these papers, more than I could hope to cover here, and I was struck by how such a diverse range of perspectives on material culture could simultaneously raise so many points of interaction. This was interdisciplinarity at its best - balancing breadth and depth, generating new ideas without losing particularity or focus, and enabling stimulating and lively discussion in each of the question sessions. The day revealed material culture to be a thriving area of study with many possibilities for new directions and approaches, suggesting that this is an area which we can keep visiting and revisiting for some time to come.


June 02, 2012

Transforming Objects @ Northumbria University, 28–29th May

Writing about web page http://www.transformingobjects.blogspot.co.uk/

Transforming ObjectsThis two-day conference at the University of Northumbria brought new perspectives to the study of material culture by focusing on ideas around objects and transformation, both in terms of the movements of objects, and the processes of change that objects themselves might effect. Papers from a wide range of disciplines, covering the 18th-20th centuries, looked at a fascinating array of objects: shawls, tea, glass, medicines, art, feathers, paper, dolls, rags, post and clocks, were just a few of the things discussed.

The first panel on "Transforming Objects in Gaskell" opened up a rich discussion of material culture in Elizabeth Gaskell's works, initiating wider contexts of domesticity, industrialisation and imperialism that recurred throughout the following two days. Alison Lundie's paper on clothing and needlework in Gaskell looked at how character and identity can be interpreted through objects of domestic arts in Gaskell's works, and focused in particular on shawls which are especially desired garments; Lundie illustrated this with beautiful images of Gaskell's own shawls. Her discussion included Miss Matty's Indian shawl in Cranford, and the factory workers' shawls in Mary Barton; this intersected nicely with the next presenter Tara Puri, whose paper on "unstable objects" in North and South included Indian shawls as part of a wider discussion about symbols of middle-class domesticity which also included tea and calico. The relationship of these objects to the representation of Margaret Hale brought out ideas around bodily presence and sexuality, and the role of imperial objects in the constructiong of middle-class English femininity. Both papers hinted towards physical borders of the self, touch, and embodiment that, to me, resonated with Kate Smith's paper at the Spaces of Work conference I attended recently. With this paper in mind, I was particularly interested in two points Lundie had made in her discussion of shawls and Mary Barton - about how factory workers are referred to as "hands", and the references to literal hands in the text. I wondered afterwards (in a not entirely coherent comment!) about how ideas around hands might interplay, literally and metaphorically, with the use of shawls and other textiles.

An afternoon panel on "altering states" looked at the power of objects to transform from one state to another. James Mussell's paper on chlorodyne raised wider questions about framing of discussions of material culture and the secret lives of things: we come to know and understand the material world through the narratives we create about it, and uncovering material history is thus a process of "telling tales about the tales that were told" about objects. His narrative of chlorodyne was a fascinating exploration of the ways in which legal and medical discourses intersect with the physical experience of the body, highlighting that medicine's powerful transformative effects on the body is situated within a wider context of authoritative discourses that speak for the body. Mark Blacklock followed with a paper on "Hinton's cubes" and late-19th century theories of 4-dimensional space, which discussed the role of objects in altering conceptual thought and opened up ideas about the relationship between things and thought.

The next morning, I chaired a panel on "Transforming objects and the creation of nation" in which themes of travel and networks of circulation were central throughout. Ruth Scobie began with a paper on Elizabeth Montagu's feathered objects, featured in William Cowper's poem "On Mrs Montagu's Feather Hangings." As in the first panel, the intersection of femininity, domesticity and imperialism came to the surface here, but Scobie looked at how the feathers - as items obtained specifically through acts of violence - made particularly visible the tensions between exotic desirability and destructive violence inherent in colonial encounters. Emalee Beddoes' paper also looked at an imperial commodity within English national space, discussing tea advertisements as an emblem of Britishness in the 19th century. Advertising played a crucial role in normalising tea from exotic artefact to everyday domestic object. Middle-class femininity featured strongly in this, with adverts typically using women; if men featured in adverts, it was typically only in the context of the international, public sphere.

The next two papers turned from objects to travellers: Maria Grazia Messore discussed Daniel Defoe's A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, a piece of travel writing which seeks to construct an idea of English national identity through the process of travelling the nation, and particularly emphasises the importance of trade and the figure of the merchant in this identity. I was interested in the importance of the circuit in this delineation of national space: each route begins in and returns to London, thus insisting on the importance of London as the centre-point of the nation - but also, with London being the centre-point of an international network of trade, thus emphasising the signficance of the global in the idea of the nation. The final paper of this panel, by Fariha Shaikh, drew on emigrants' narratives to consider travellers' objects and the ways in which travelling objects construct ideas of space for the traveller. Shaikh noted that in emigrants' accounts, much attention is given to the physical positioning of objects and everything being in its right place, and she considered how this suggests a reconceptualisation of the journey space as not so much an invisible backdrop to the journey, but as a space to be worked through, experienced and reshaped by the traveller.

The final panel I attended gave a fascinating account of paper in its many and various forms. Claire Friend discussed the process of making paper in 18th century Edinburgh, from collecting the rags and scraps that were used as the basic material, to the finished product - of which there were over 300 types being made in Edinburgh alone. Eugenia Gonzalez then looked at objects made from paper: dolls, which often had faces made from papier-mâché. Gonzalez's paper explored narratives of doll production, i.e. books which informed their young readers of how dolls were made, again raising interesting questions about the intersection between objects and narrative processes, as well as the desire to know the secret histories of things and how they came to be. Katie McGettigan brought together several strands of discussion in a paper that considered the material form and circulation of the book, demonstrating Melville's engagement with the literary marketplace and the idea of book as object through a series of metaphoric connections between books and whales in the text.

Two keynote papers also provided stimulating ideas and perspectives on the conference theme. John Holmes spoke about the pre-Raphaelites and science, which proved to be a fascinating exploration (and demonstration) of interdisciplinarity in arguing that the pre-Raphaelites transformed what art could achieve through an engagement with science, which in turn transformed how science represented itself. Sarah Haggarty's paper returned to ideas of national circulation, space and time; I particularly enjoyed her comments on the postal service and its role in transforming the experience of time, in which individual sense of temporality depends upon a regulated, national system of circulation.

As well as the academic discussions that ensued from these excellent papers, a particular highlight for me was participating in the Roundtable discussion on blogging. The theme of our discussion was single- or multi-author blogging, but in the hour and a half we ranged over issues of academic identity, narrative voice, the importance of "impact", web presence, and the different forms that academic blogging might take. Lucinda Matthews-Jones, who chaired the roundtable, has done an excellent job of capturing the discussion in a blog post for JVC Online- which is itself a great example of a multi-author blog and well worth a read for Victorianists!

My thanks again to the conference organisers for inviting me to join the discussion, and for an extremely interesting two days of thinking about things! It's proved very timely as the next event of the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies seminar is on the theme of "Victorian Things", and I'll be giving a paper titled "What connection can there be?: People, Objects and Places, c. 1851". The paper draws out some ideas around material culture, national/global networks, and the Great Exhibition, so the Transforming Objects conference has provided a useful stimulus for developing these thoughts.


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